Sunday, December 04, 2005

 

Schubert: the "Tragic" Symphony

This one, No. IV, in C minor, composed early in 1816, is the first of Schubert's Symphonies which challenges attention, since it presents features of more than transient interest, and manifests, already, the distinctive, typical Schubert idiom. But the title "Tragic" is inaccurate, pompous, and a bit pretentious. For no youth of nineteen summers really knows what tragedy signifies---at least, Schubert did not; he bases his conception of it upon what he has read or heard, but not what he has felt or known. Therefore there is to be found in this Symphony no more than a general, artificially emphasized dramatic strain (in the first and last Movements only), and a few pathetic touches, but no genuine tragic outbursts.

The forms are regular, but disclose Schubert's characteristic treatment of modulation, particularly in the placing of his subordinate Themes, and in the Recapitulation, where he indulges in transpositions that modify the traditional scheme, though they cannot be charged with impairing the structural impression. Thus, on the first movement (C minor) he sets the subordinate Theme in A-flat, instead of the conventional E-flat, and ends the Exposition in that key; and the Recapitulation begins in G minor, instead of C minor, with the subordinate Theme in E-flat. The Coda is in C major---which is normal.

The second Movement is a lovely Lyric, or friendly character, in sonatine-allegro form (that is, without a Development), and here are encountered episodes of touching pathos.

The third Movement is called a Menuetto, but it is in reality a Scherzo, quite after Beethoven's heart, and decidedly effective. Its Trio is a beautiful specimen of Schubert's typical conception.

The Finale is again a sonata-allegro design; the principal Theme is inferior---scarcely more than a boyish imitation of pseudo-dramatic opera; but the subordinate Theme (here again in A-flat) is a truly beautiful, redeeming feature. The Recapitulation is in C major, the subordinate Theme placed at first in F.

Schubert was almost as inveterate a devotee of the device of Repetition as was Beethoven. But when Beethoven repeats, the effect is quite a different thing; like so many of Beethoven's creative processes, which, being controlled by serious mental effort, profound reflection and untiring comparison and pruning, turn out results that are unique and firm. Beethoven's repetitions always strengthen the structure, while those of Schubert (and others) often weaken it; those of Beethoven make for unity---those of Schubert are apt to produce the impression of monotony. The comparison may be somewhat unfair, since this refers mainly to Schubert's earlier works, composed during a period in which Beethoven had already attained to maturity. At any rate, the listener will find that it does not apply to Schubert's last two great Symphonies, wherein we would not willingly dispense with a single tone.

Cheers,

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